The recent death by suicide of Keith Emerson on 10 March 2016 was an ugly tragedy.
One of the greatest keyboard players to record in the last fifty years, a talented composer, and a performing artist of rare ability, his music was an important part of my growing up. I recall the first Emerson, Lake and Palmer recording I ever heard, “Jerusalem” from Brain Salad Surgery. It was overwhelmingly powerful. I can still remember where I was when I heard it, how I came to hear it, who I was with, and the new dimension it opened for me. I will always be grateful to you for this, Keith. It is no overstatement to say that hearing that rekindled in me the sense that music has a power to touch the soul.
And why did he kill himself? What can it have been but a lack of purpose in his life as a life, a lack of the sense that his achievement was an achievement of being. Surely he identified with his prodigious talent as a musician to the point where, when he could no longer perform, he could no longer live.
Identification makes us lose perspective. The purpose of life cannot be found outside of the suffering – which means here the allowing – which comes with life. In “The Endless Enigma Pt 2”, Greg Lake sang: “in “The Endless Enigma Pt 2”, “Now that it’s done, I’ve begin to see the reason why I’m here”. Reason is important, although I am not sure that Greg did see the reason, although he may have felt something. But the reason for life cannot be apart from the suffering which forms so large a part of it, and neither can it be apart from the joy which comes.
A reason for living is why people sacrifice so much for their faiths, no matter how bizarre, no matter how abusive or exploitive that faith, cult or creed is. A reason for living will justify death, because the death fulfils the purpose of the life. But Keith’s suicide was not like this.
It is all the sadder because you could tell just by watching him perform that he was not in the least arrogant. He was patently a very nice person, as was (and is) his friend Carl Palmer, the virtuoso drummer who worked with him on what I think was his greatest work, with ELP. For the record, I don’t feel antipathy towards Lake. He is clearly a remarkably talented man of great intelligence. But although he was the vocalist, his personality never came across the way Emerson and Palmer’s did, at least not to me.
It comes down to this: what we do is not as important as what we are, although what we are will manifest through what we do, and what we do is a clue to our state. But the important doing is internal. It is holiness, the state of godliness. It begins as consciousness but it blossoms into holiness. Nothing else is worth the prize. And this purpose does not depend on the roller–coaster of life. George Borrow has this haunting passage in chapter 25 of his too little known masterwork Lavengro. He is speaking with Jasper the gypsy. Jasper speaks first:
“Life is sweet, brother.”
“Do you think so?”
“Think so!—There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?”
“I would wish to die—”
“You talk like a gorgio—which is the same as talking like a fool—were you a Rommany Chal you would talk wiser. Wish to die, indeed!—A Rommany Chal would wish to live for ever!”
“In sickness, Jasper?”
“There’s the sun and stars, brother.”
“In blindness, Jasper?”
“There’s the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I would gladly live for ever. Dosta, we’ll now go to the tents and put on the gloves; and I’ll try to make you feel what a sweet thing it is to be alive, brother!”